Universal // 2010 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // February 9th, 2011
"I don't think God is very interested in me, Father."
Cinema has long held a candle for stories about those men who live the dark life of the contract killer. They have run the gamut from introspective mood pieces to all out action fests, and given us some of the most memorable figures in film history. Director Anton Corbijn (Control) and star George Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) bring their own take on the hitman to the table with The American, based on the late Martin Booth's novel, A Very Private Gentleman. As far removed from your typical assassin fare as it gets, does The American score a kill? Or does this one miss the mark?
Jack (Clooney) is a veteran operator, a killer and gunsmith for hire. When some downtime in Sweden ends with an ambush and several killings, Jack makes his way to the Italian countryside to lay low. Sick of the solitary lifestyle, he requests one final task before he's out for good. His handler gives him an easy one; construct a rifle for another operator's job. While completing the task at hand, Jack falls in with a local priest, and a local working girl, but he's forgotten one of the cardinal rules; in this business, friends are a luxury you can't afford.
The American feels very much like a film out of time. In today's Hollywood, hitman flicks are typically mile-a-minute action spectacles; where guys like Jason Statham tear through droves of faceless suits with a .45 in each hand and a one-liner for every situation. In that regard, The American would feel more at home in the '60s or '70s, when the avant garde generation was at its prime; indeed it could be right at home on a shelf with Day of the Jackal and Le Samouraï.
The film's chief draw is no doubt the fantastic effort put forth by George Clooney. Clooney's Jack is the same sort of solitary creature of habit as Jef or the Jackal, a consummate perfectionist who's been all but consumed by his work. Clooney has always been an interesting guy to watch, never clinging very long to the "Hollywood leading man" sort of roles people might expect from him, and here he's no different. He's at his best when he plays it cold and mean, and Jack is definitely a cold, mean character. He doesn't speak much, but his face tells us everything we need to know. Honestly, roles like this that convince me that George is one of the very best actors working today.
Most notable amongst the supporting cast are Violante Placido, a gorgeous Italian singer/actress who plays the working girl that Clooney takes a shining to, and Paolo Bonacelli (Salo) as the Padre who becomes Jack's confessor of sorts. Both play pivotal roles in the development of Jack as a character, and both are excellent throughout the film.
Director Anton Corbijn's direction is a little more paradoxical. The visuals are lush and gorgeous, framed with a photographer's eye, and yet, the whole film has sparseness to it, a bare bones approach that belies the pretty imagery. Audio often feels like it's recorded raw and on set, action is quick and terse, over in seconds, and almost always shocking. The film really stands out as much for Corbijn's unique take on the material from a director's standpoint as it does for Clooney's excellent portrayal. This is a guy to watch.
A very promotional "making of" puff piece that lasts about 10 minutes, and less than five minutes of deleted scenes are all that we get in the way of substantial extras. Director Corbijn provides a solid commentary track. He's an eloquent speaker but he's pretty subdued at times, which makes this one you may want to take in over a few sittings.
Technically, the disc is a bit of a mixed bag. The picture is soft and gritty, more of a stylistic choice, but I also noticed more than a few instances of edge halos and compression noise. The sound fares a little better, coming to life at the more active times of the film, which is to say, not very often, but the beautiful score and the dialogue all come through loud and clear.
With very little in the way of action, extended scenes where nothing happens amidst silence, and Corbijn's lack of post production presence or the usual Hollywood spit n polish, The American really becomes a difficult film to wholeheartedly recommend. It's definitely not for your average hitman fan, it's a slow, navel gazing exercise that will likely inspire boredom in many viewers. That out of the way, if you're the type who gravitates to arthouse fare, The American is the real deal; The film doesn't feel like so much of the studio output these days, like run of the mill dramas and hokey period pics gussied up in prestige packaging and stacked with "actor's actors" in order to appear hoity toity. This is arthouse in the same way that the works of Goddard or Melville would be considered arthouse, and while it doesn't quite reach the high highs of the realm of the complex emotional or psychological ideas of the French new wave, it certainly packs a similar punch, and does so effortlessly.
Depending on which club you pay heed to, The American was either a criminally neglected gem, one of the very best films of 2010, or a self indulgent bore, in which Clooney does nothing for what feels like seven hours. For me, it lies somewhere in the middle. Director Corbijn's arthouse leanings are a little too arthouse at times, going beyond serving the film and into self indulgence, but Clooney's perfect performance and the "off the beaten" path nature of this particular film's take on the "hitman mythology" makes it a worthy effort for the more sophisticated film-goer.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes